How to Be a Writer and Novelist

One of the easiest ways to make a living is by writing books. But many new authors find they have no clue how to even begin to write, let alone sell their work. In this blog post I will share tips and advice on becoming an author as well as some of my thoughts on what makes good literature in general.

“How to start writing a novel” is a question that many people have. There are many different ways to get started, but the most important thing is to be persistent. Read more in detail here: how to start writing a novel.

Dennis Mahoney author photo portrait.

We’re back with another installment of our So You Want My Job series, in which we speak with guys who work in coveted positions and ask them about the realities of their employment as well as tips on how men might achieve their goals.

A lot of guys want to be writers. Many have even completed a book and feel they have written a fantastic novel. But what happens after that? How do you get from slaving away in a room someplace with a completed book clutched in your hands to having it published? And even if it is published, how do you persuade people to actually read it? Today, author Dennis Mahoney shares his thoughts on taking this long-awaited step. Mahoney’s first published novel, Fellow Mortals, was published this year by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux and received a positive review in the New York Times. Even if you never intend to create the Great American book, this is a fascinating and engaging conversation.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself (e.g., where do you come from?). What is your age? Describe your job, including how long you’ve been doing it, and so on.)

I was born in Troy, New York, and attended college there. After college, my wife and I bounced across the East Coast, pursuing jobs we never enjoyed, until we purchased a home in Troy after our son was born. I’m 38 years old and have been writing for about two decades. My creative instincts were strong from a young age, although they first manifested themselves via painting and imaginative play. When The Empire Strikes Back was released, I was six years old, and it forever altered my life. I used to wish I could be George Lucas and create something as great as that. I’d create “movies” by snapping consecutive shots of my action figures or sketching a cartoon on a large roll of paper that I could pull through a fake TV fashioned of a box with two slots cut in the side, slideshow-style. So, even though I wasn’t writing at the time, the desire to tell a narrative was there. Until I was in my teens, books were not a big part of my life.

2. What inspired you to pursue a career as a novelist? When did you realize you wanted to do it?

In my junior year of high school, I was on a self-improvement kick—trying to find direction, hoping for a girlfriend—and since I wasn’t naturally athletic, reading and writing seemed hip and even countercultural. I’d been downgraded to a lower-level English class because I’d been lazy and “not realizing my potential.” I began reading other books instead of the advanced class material since I’d previously read a lot of it the previous year. It seemed like a tremendous achievement to finish Stephen King’s The Stand. Reading Hemingway and Shakespeare on my own initiative, as well as making intellectual friends, gave me a great confidence boost. I felt like I had earned some respect by staying up all night to complete a book. Much of it was pretension, but the books themselves started to influence my perspective, as books frequently do, and I soon found myself composing poetry and convinced myself that it was wonderful. I started to shape my self-identity around my work as a writer.


3. Do you believe that writing should come naturally via self-education and practice, or that majoring in a writing-related field in college and/or graduate school is worthwhile?

The importance of self-education and practice cannot be overstated. A major may assist, but it isn’t required. I’m not knocking writing programs; I’m just arguing that no writing software will assist you if the majority of your work isn’t self-generated to begin with. I learnt the most from books I wanted to read rather than those given to me in class, but having an English major introduced me to works I wouldn’t have found otherwise, as well as like-minded people and amazing instructors. It was a way of life. I was a self-confessed book geek. Isn’t it true that every successful job needs to be a way of life? Off the field, a Major League baseball player thinks like a player, remaining focused and eating properly. His life revolves on the game. I don’t go through the day thinking about writing, yet it’s constantly on my mind. I’ve gone to the gym to be in shape because it offers me more energy, and I need more energy to write. As strange as it may seem, I exercise in order to improve my writing skills. I read to improve my writing skills. But, returning to writing programs, writing may be taught like any other trade, but it requires a natural aptitude. You’ll never actually care enough to be a writer if you’re faking the desire because you think it’d be fun to be one. As I fell in love with writing, what started as a ruse in my own life became true.

4. A guy has authored a book. So, what’s next? How do you go about finding a publisher for it? Do you send the manuscript out yourself, and if so, where? Do you need the services of an agent to market it around? How does the process of acquiring a book contract function in practice?

The typical method of obtaining a book contract is well-established and, in most cases, terrifying. Before my third book, Fellow Mortals, found a home, I went through the full process with two prior novels. (Note: Looking back, I can understand why those first two books were frequently rejected, and I’m grateful there were agents who refused to let me publish them.) Gatekeepers are often beneficial.) Here’s how it goes: Nonfiction requires a sample chapter and a thorough structure to propose a concept. With fiction, you must have the completed work. So, let’s assume you’ve finished a book, rewritten it many times, given it to honest readers for input, rewrote it again, and polished it to perfection. A novel that isn’t provided via a renowned literary agency is nearly never considered by large publishers. Good agents may be found in a variety of ways. Checking the acknowledgments page of comparable novels (usually writers thank their agents) and are two of my favorites. You may use the latter to look for agents based on specified criteria. You can select an agency that represents comparable writers, so your horror work won’t be forwarded to someone who represents romantic novels, for example. The search returns contact information, agency website links, and submission instructions. Send a query after you’ve identified some suitable agents. This is a brief letter in which you introduce yourself, describe your work in a few appealing phrases (think jacket copy), and ask if they’d like to read a sample. An agent will request pages if all works smoothly. If she like the sample pages, she’ll want the whole book. If she loves everything about it, she may agree to represent you. A smart agent will have connections with editors at publishing companies and will submit to those she believes are the best match for her client. There’s no guarantee you’ll receive a contract at this stage, but if an editor likes your book as much as you do, you’ll get an offer to purchase and publish it. You’ll be given a royalty advance depending on the amount of money the publisher anticipates to make. Advances are generally little, but if you’ve gone this far, consider yourself lucky. You’ve come a long way, and if your book is a success, you’ll be rewarded with further royalties after your advance has been repaid. 


5. When it comes to book negotiations, what do publishers look for? Do you have any suggestions on how to get one?

Every publication is unique, and each editor is a mix of professional and, more importantly, personal interests. I feel that the majority of agents and editors are book aficionados. Only a few editors make a lot of money. They’re in it because it’s something they like. That isn’t to say they don’t want their books to sell like hotcakes, but many editors will battle for a book they believe in, even if they feel the audience is limited. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, my publisher, is known for promoting writers based on quality rather than evident marketability. They take more risks, but are more discriminating as a result. My manuscript was rejected twice by my editor. I won the contract because I made a terrific revision, she recognized the book’s potential, and we clicked. My advice for landing a job is simple: like writing and don’t give up. Just keep creating better books until one of those book-obsessed agents or editors spots your work in their stack. Except by performing better work, you can’t influence how others respond to your work. When they should be creating a book, many authors spend too much time thinking about book deals.

6. What are your feelings on self-publishing? Is it still a feasible alternative nowadays? What are the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing vs going via a traditional publisher?

I’m not an expert on the issue, but here’s what I think. Self-publishing was formerly seen as a laughingstock. It’s now more respectable, owing to many outstanding authors who took that path. However, I believe it is much more difficult than the standard method. Yes, anybody may self-publish and earn larger royalties per copy while avoiding the agonizing process of inquiry rejection. But once your book is out there, you’ll need to figure out how to stand out among the millions of others. You can hire a PR, but it will eat up a lot of your spare cash, and self-publishing success stories are much more uncommon than some people imagine. Even if the stigma of self-publishing has faded, it still lingers to some extent. When you say you self-published a novel, all they know is that you authored a book. When you tell someone your novel is being published by a large publishing firm, they know you authored a work that was excellent enough to make it out of the slush pile. It all depends on your preferences. Will self-publishing satisfy you? Are you prepared to put in a lot of effort and self-promotion to make it work? Take a chance. Will you be dissatisfied if you don’t get a standard deal? Work hard till you find one.

7. Every year, tens of thousands of books are written. How can you make your manuscript stand out from the crowd and get noticed? Do you have any marketing advice? How did you get a New York Times Book Review review? Is it just accident that they stumbled upon your book? How do they choose which novels to review?


My publisher goes above and beyond to promote the books they publish. Sales representatives go from shop to store, attempting to persuade bookstores to stock new releases (this is true of all major publishers). At FSG, I have a publicist that contacts every large and little newspaper, magazine, and website that could be interested in covering the book. She gives them copies and keeps in touch with them. That’s how I received the New York Times review. (It didn’t hurt that FSG is a well-regarded publishing business; as a side note, the Times still won’t evaluate self-published novels.) Word-of-mouth, which no one can control, is still one of the most effective—if not the most effective—methods of becoming recognized. If readers like a book, they told their friends and family about it. If word-of-mouth spreads, the books will take off, and no review or article will be able to compete. I’ve also written and tweeted, but those methods work best when you’re trying to build an audience rather than simply self-promote. Facebook is a waste of time; it’s your friends and family who will, hopefully, purchase your book anyhow. To get my name out there, I authored guest pieces for a number of well-known websites. But, as time has shown, the greatest advertising is a good book, therefore the majority of a novelist’s effort is actually creating the novel.

8. Did you have a second job while you were writing your novel? Do you presently work as a full-time writer? What proportion of authors do you think work full-time on their craft?

I didn’t want to be a teacher, therefore I didn’t know what to do with my English degree. I did a few temp jobs before landing a position doing television research for The Hallmark Channel in New York City. Nielsen ratings were crunched. It was the wretchedest job possible for a writer. I eventually became a copywriter for an academic publishing business, but after our kid was born, I became a stay-at-home parent, and now that I’ve had one book published, I’m attempting to write fiction full-time. Without my very supportive and hardworking wife, none of this would be possible. By managing funds and undertaking DIY projects, I strive to keep myself productive.

9 The publishing industry is evolving at a fast pace. The American novelist, according to Scott Turow, is dying “slowly.” Aren’t there, however, new chances for writers as well? What do you believe the problems and possibilities are for contemporary authors, in your opinion?

I’m amazed that any author can still write with a straight face about the death of fiction, publishing, and so on. Lamenting the demise of literature was a cliché decades ago. Not that folks like Turow don’t have real worries, or that they aren’t worth expressing, but it all sounds like Mayan prophesies and Y2K, and yet here we are, still writing and reading. I honestly wonder whether there was ever a time when authors were well-paid and everyone read a book a week. Even as a paper aficionado, I think eBooks are fantastic. As a conventionally published author attempting to stand out in an increasingly crowded industry, I think self-publishing is fantastic. Opportunities are constantly available. Look at this: despite the fact that your site is quite popular and you’ve previously included job pieces on anything from butchers to luthiers, I was able to successfully pitch this feature ahead of any other author. I would have tried somewhere else if my pitch here didn’t work out. Being a writer entails essentially producing a decent work, improving, and finding a way to appreciate it. The second problem is getting your completed work into the hands of overburdened readers; the ideal answer is to produce a book that people want to read and recommend. Look at the fantastic array of possibilities available: social media, websites, huge and small conventional publishers, and self-publishing. Choose the paths that excite you. Finally, I try not to get caught up with the status of the business or the popularity of fiction. It doesn’t make me a better writer. Why should I let it distract me when I can’t control it any more than I can control a meteor striking Earth? 


10. What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?

The actual writing. That was not always the case. I had such a strong desire to get published that I couldn’t wait to complete a novel, polish it up, and send it out. I was upset and pondered abandoning up the first time I submitted a manuscript to hundreds of agents and failed to get it published. For me, depression has always been a threat, and rejection exacerbated it. However, I’ve learned that when I’m not writing, I’m more prone to get sad. I become impatient and gloomy if I miss a few days, which is unusual at this point. Writing is beneficial to me. It keeps me in check and gives me a sense of purpose. When I discovered it might also be enjoyable, I had a tremendous epiphany. I’d been duped for years by the pained artist crap. This is a work that I do five to seven days a week, every week, for the rest of my life, preferably. If I thought of it as torture and didn’t find anything else to do with my time, I’d be an idiot. So now I write to fulfill myself, and I have complete control over the process. It’s just me and my imaginative world—no concerns about advertising or the demise of contemporary fiction.

11. What is the most difficult aspect of your job?

I still have the anxiety that I’m not a good writer and have no idea what I’m doing. Part of writing is having an inner critic who looks for errors and possible improvements, yet the critic appears at inconvenient moments, occasionally lies, and often misses the most obvious flaws. It’s difficult to strike a balance between unrestrained passion and deliberate intellect. However, the benefit of writing is that it is done in secret, and I have all of the opportunities I need to make a text work.

12. How do you strike a work-family-life balance?

It’s somewhat balanced, yet it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing. I become distracted or stressed out from time to time and have to reduce my workload. When our kid is at school, I am really fortunate to enjoy six hours of uninterrupted time. I do the most of my writing at home with our dog Bones, and I attempt to clean and exercise a few times a week. In the afternoons, I’m with our kid, and after my wife comes home from work, we’re all together. I’m a bit of a recluse. Most of the time, I’m OK with sticking put. Our family’s routine is hectic but not out of control, and my wife and I attempt to keep things in check whenever our lives get disorganized.

13. What is the most common misunderstanding about your job?

That it’s magic, not merely a result of tens of thousands of hours of work. Authors have an aura around them that you don’t see in other professions, maybe because their work is so personal, and because so many writers, like myself, struggle to articulate how we move from a single idea to a 300-page book. But I have the same feelings towards everybody who excels in anything. I just read a news story about a local high school kid who is excelling in pole vaulting. That seems inexplicable to me. He utilizes a long bendy stick to push himself into the air, practically upside-down, without breaking his neck. Give the individual the air of enchantment.


14. Do you have any more advice, recommendations, observations, or anecdotes to share?

I spent 10 years writing and putting in a lot of work before I came up with anything decent enough to publish. I continuously questioned myself, lost hope, re-approached it, regained hope, and ultimately discovered a rebellious kind of bliss in knowing that I would keep writing even if I died an old man without a book contract. Now that I’ve achieved some success, I can confidently state that the battle was well worth it, and that my everyday job is more fulfilling than ever. There’s a great story about a young Edward Norton being told he didn’t have any skill and should stop acting. This was said by a lady he admired. He was upset as he walked away, but he later realized she was mistaken. You’re definitely a writer who’ll make it someday if you behave like that whenever someone or anything tells you to pack it in. And I recently shared a discovery with an aspiring writer: when older authors have passed their prime and very young writers aren’t quite there yet, the writers in the middle have the greatest chance of breaking through. So, if you’re feeling discouraged because you haven’t been published after years of work, know that there’s still time. It’s not like certain sports where you’re done when you’re thirty. At 47, you may be Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain) or Norman McLean (A River Runs Through It) and at 74, you could be Norman McLean (A River Runs Through It). And, honestly, postpone worrying about publication until after you’ve written your manuscript. Then start writing a new book right now. As soon as possible.



The “novel writing tips” are some helpful hints and advice that can help aspiring novelists. The article will also include links to other articles on the topic.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I start a career as a novelist?

A: For starters, you should read different novels and decide what kind of story is your favorite. Then, brainstorm a plot that you think would work based on the novel you have chosen. Next step is to figure out the protagonists personality traits so they can come across as realistic in their actions or reactions. Finally, create characters that are similar to those traits but still unique enough for readers to connect with them easily through characterization.

How do you write a novel for beginners?

A: A basic novel is comprised of chapters that are typically around 10-20 pages long. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger and you must read the next chapter to see what happens next in the story.

Is it possible to become a novelist?

A: It is possible to become a novelist, but it would take lots of time and effort. You will need to start from writing short stories or novels that do not have much content in them until you build up enough experience for your work to be accepted by major publishers.

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